On March 16, with the Resolution CM/Res(2022)2, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CoE) decided to expel the Russian Federation from the Council of Europe. Furthermore, from September 16, the State will no longer be a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The decision did not come as a complete surprise. However, it is the first time a country is expelled from the Council and this decision will have a significant impact on Russian citizens – but not only.
Before going into the details of the adopted resolution and its consequences, it seems useful to recall what the Council of Europe is and to add some details about the membership of the Russian Federation. Despite its name, the Council of Europe should not be confused with the European Council nor the Council of the European Union. In fact, while the latter are institutions of the European Union, the former is the continent's leading human rights organisation. However, the 27 European Union states are all members of the Council of Europe and the two organizations work in close partnership.
The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 - so in the aftermath of the II World Word – with the aim to protect democracy and human rights and to promote European unity by fostering cooperation on legal, cultural, and social issues. It is composed of 46 member states – plus six observer states - and made up of several bodies. Among them, the Committee of Minister, the Parliamentary Assembly and the European Court of Human Rights are particularly important for the purpose of this article. The Committee of Minister consists of the ministers of foreign affairs of each member state and holds decision-making power; the Parliamentary Assembly – also known as PACE – consists of members of parliament from the member states that are party to the organization; lastly, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is the permanent judicial body which guarantees the rights safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Its role is particularly important since the Court monitors and ensures the respect of the Convention by examining the complaints of human rights violations brought by individuals and States against Council of Europe members. In case of a detected breach, the Court delivers a judgment which is binding.
The ECHR is one of the several instruments through which the Council tries to achieve its goals and to secure the respect of its values and principles. Specifically, since it is the first Council of Europe’s convention and the cornerstone of all its activities, the ratification of the ECHR is a prerequisite for joining the organisation. So, all the state parties – including the Russian Federation – are bound by it and must secure the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention, such as the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and the right to liberty.
The Russian Federation was admitted to the Council of Europe in 1996 but since the beginning, its membership and its commitment to the founding values of the Organization has been debated. If from one side the country fulfilled the criteria for the accension and adopted specific reforms, from the other side it didn’t comply with several other obligations and commitments. The armed conflict in Chechnya, the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia and the annexation of Crimea are clear examples. However, a drastic decision as the one taken a few weeks ago had never been adopted: the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the ongoing non-compliance of the latter with the warnings of the international community and bodies – including the European Court of Human Rights - called for a different response.
On February 25, the Committee of Ministers suspended the Russian Federation from its rights of representation within both the council and the Parliamentary Assembly with immediate effect. Notwithstanding the suspension, the country remained a member of the Council of Europe and as such party to the relevant Council of Europe conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights. On March 15, the head of the Russian delegation at the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly announced the country's intention to formally leave the organisation. It was not the first time Russia considered to withdraw its membership.
However, the day after the announcement and without waiting for the country’s next step, Russia was expelled from the Council.
On which grounds did the Committee of Ministers take this decision? Under Article 8 of Council’s statute, any state party which seriously violates the principles and the provisions laid down in Article 3 of the same statute, may be suspended from its rights of representation, can be requested to withdraw from the organisation or can be expelled. Article 3 encloses the core values of the Council of Europe: rule of law, human rights and sincere and effective cooperation. As pointed out by the Parliamentary Assembly in its Opinion 300 (2022) – unanimously adopted-, the Russian Federation doesn’t comply with “the commitments – deriving from its membership of the Council of Europe - to settle international and internal disputes by peaceful means, rejecting resolutely any threats of force against its neighbours, and to denounce the concept of treating neighbouring States as a zone of special influence called the near abroad”. As such, both the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Minister consider the Russian behaviour against Ukraine to be incompatible with the status of a Council of Europe member State.
The next step was then clear: on March 22, the European Court of Human Rights adopted a Resolution and declared that the Russian Federation ceases to be a High Contracting Party to the European Convention on Human Rights on 16 September 2022. If we came back to the role of the Court mentioned above and read it in the light of the current situation, Ukrainians – and others in Europe - will not be able to lodge human rights complaints against Putin’s government. At the same time, of course, Russians will not have this opportunity against their own government or the one of another State. From September 16, the European Court of Human Rights will no longer have jurisdiction over complaints against Russia.
The expulsion of the Russian Federation from the Council of Europe is giving rise to a debate among scholars and international lawyers. Some of them, for example, call for a reform within the Council of Europe and for breaking the link between the Council membership and the Convention.
However, what seems crucial is that human rights and fundamental freedoms are – or better should be - the backstone of the European continent and beyond. The international organizations born in the aftermath of the clear and massive human right violation committed during the II World War are meant to avoid the repetition of history and to protect fundamental rights. And the non-compliance with these by a state together with the lack of access to a human rights Court represent a setback on which the international community – and we, as citizens – should deeply reflect.